I just watched the first episode of A & E’s new series, Teach, where actor Tony Danza tries to teach a tenth grade english class at Northeast high school in Philadelphia. While there are plenty of detractors in this situation, I’m excited this show exists.
1. it gives everyone who thinks teaching is the easiest thing in the world an inside look at a classroom, and how hard it really is to earn the trust and respect of teenagers. Just because we’ve all been to school, it doesn’t make us experts in education. Tony shows us that even if we have the best of intentions, we still can get a lot wrong.
2- it shows how truly thoughtful students are, and what the expect of teachers. The kids expect the teacher will be prepared and organized, and that they’ll have them do something meaningful in the class. They aren’t stupid, and they expect the teacher to take the job seriously. Often people underestimate how students view their teachers,or that students are just looking for a way to get by. Instead, this show shows that students are really concerned about learning and engaging, even if they are occasionally shy in the classroom.
3. As Tony Danza tries to find his teaching zen, we see him almost go overboard trying to please these kids or entertain them a bit. This goes over like a lead balloon for the students, who want a teacher, not a comedian. Their reluctance in the classroom and in out-of-class commentary seems to signal a lack of trust, a lack of trust equity, between the students and teacher, so the students are cautious and suspicious. In order for his students to perform, they have to have a sense that the teacher is also committed to the process and is trust-worthy.
4. I admire Tony’s frankness and openness in the classroom with the students- he doesn’t try to be perfect all the time, but he certainly needs to temper his frankness with maintaining a sense that he is not winging it every day. While I think students would appreciate his sense of honesty, they clearly are critical and think he is not organized or prepared. Since they have been trained for years that being prepared and organized are key for school success, should they accept anything less from their teacher?
5. Tony is clearly finding that teaching, and first year teaching, is not easy. I think this is a good lesson for all of us to think about, when American education seems to be criticized at every turn. We all think we could be brilliant teachers, but being a good student or knowing stuff is not enough. You have to be willing and able to translate that knowledge to others- to remember what it was like not to understand, and be able to mentor someone else along. And it’s not easy.
“Teach” may not end up being the most popular show on television, but I think it offers a rare insight into what a teacher faces every day, and how teachers are seen by students. In a day and age when everyone thinks they have an answer to education from the outside, maybe what we most need is some perspective as to what it looks like under the hood, and I hope Teach can do that.
As someone who is writing a book on instruction and who teaches classes mainly to adult learners, I know that putting together one class is hard enough- let alone 5 or more classes a week, several times a day, and try to come up with more creative and engaging ideas. Before we heap that next log on the fire of education, let’s try to take a moment and appreciate how much we ask of teachers every day, and how little thanks they get on the whole. Let’s try to offer help rather than dogmatic suggestions on improvement, and rather than insisting we know best, maybe we all need a little dose of reality ourselves- and realize it’s not all that easy to do all day, every day.